The Spores Must Flow — Star Trek Discovery’s “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry”

One of the issues I have with the full-season-story model of television is that all too often the creation of a good one-hour episode gets lost in the shuffle. Everyone’s so focused on the big story arc that they forget that they have 42 minutes to tell a single story, and you wind up getting an unsatisfying hour of TV watching on its own. Sometimes this works. The Wire, for example, did a great job of telling one big dozen-episode story each season. But in general, the sweet spot is to find a balance, treating each episode as a single story that’s part of a greater whole. Breaking Bad and its current prequel Better Call Saul accomplish this masterfully.

I have no idea if Star Trek Discovery will do this well over the long haul, but I’m given great hope by “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry,” because it’s a damn fine episode that tells a very good—and a very Star Trek—story in its hour while continuing the seasonal arc along.

Let’s start with what’s wrong with the episode, though: they really need to let the Klingons just speak friggin English already. It’s an established trope—perhaps best executed in The Hunt for Red October—where you have the characters speak in their native tongue for a bit then switch to English to make everyone’s life easier. Whatever interest there is in Kol’s takeover of Voq’s ragtag bunch of T’Kuvma’s followers, left behind in a broken ship after the war started, is drained away by the labored dialogue. While the three actors involved do a better job than Chris Obi as T’Kuvma in the first two episodes—Mary Chieffo as L’Rell, Kenneth Mitchell as Kol, and especially Javid Iqbal as Voq at least manage to convey emotion through facial expressions, particularly via their eyes—the episode once again grinds to a halt every time they talk. It takes them so long to say what they have to say that you’ve read the subtitles twice by the time they move on.

Which is too bad, as the machinations here are fascinating. It was T’Kuvma’s claims of messiah-hood that got this whole thing started, but his followers are left behind on a half-dead ship with only one cool thing on it: a cloak. Kol waits until the ship is almost completely repaired and then takes over by the simple expedient of providing food to the crew. (What’s the old saw about an Army running on its stomach?) L’Rell feigns loyalty to Kol by recommending that Voq be stranded on the wreck of the Shenzhou (from which they have already salvaged a part), thus keeping him alive. One wonders what, exactly, the now virtually alone torchbearer will do with the dead Starfleet ship…

Back on the Discovery, we find out that I’m dumb. I assumed—wrongly, as several folks in the comments pointed out—that the creature that killed the Klingon boarding party on the Glenn as well as Second Security Guard On The Left also killed the Glenn crew, but no, the Glenn crew was wiped out by something else, and that let the creature free.

Lorca assigns Burnham to examine this creature that was able to resist phaser fire and kill Klingons without working up a sweat. Her job is to weaponize the alien, and he assigns Landry to keep her on point.

On the one hand, this is contrary to how Lorca sold her on staying aboard Discovery instead of going back to prison last week. On the other hand, the reason why she was imprisoned in the first place is because she didn’t follow orders. Mutiny was a disaster when she was second in command, it’s not likely to work out any better when she’s literally the lowest-ranking person on the entire ship by virtue of not even having a rank. She learns that the creature is a tardigrade on steroids and that, like Lorca, it’s very sensitive to bright light. She also points out to Landry that every action its taken can be viewed as self-defense.

In addition, Discovery has an urgent mission. There are no ships close enough to help out a colony being attacked by Klingons, but the fancy-shmancy spore drive that both Discovery and Glenn were working on could get them there almost instantly. If it works. Which, so far, it doesn’t.

They take a shot at it anyhow, and wind up in the corona of a sun. Stamets is badly injured, but Burnham notices that the tardigrade reacts to the spore drive being used. Landry quickly grows fed up with Burnham being all science-y and decides to sedate the tardigrade—whom she has named “Ripper”—and cut off its claws, which can cut through Klingon armor and skin. Burnham reminds her that they don’t know how Ripper will respond to sedation, which Landry rather stupidly ignores.

In the end, we get an inevitable security officer death. Rekha Sharma was listed as a guest star, not in the main cast, so it was likely that she wasn’t long for the world, and she was obnoxious and stupid and I’m not going to miss her. (Sharma is a very good actor who deserved a better role than the one-note Landry.) Having said that, wow, this is probably the third-stupidest death in Trek history, by which I mean a character who died 100% due to being galactically stupid. Landry slots into the bronze spot right after Joe Tormolen from “The Naked Time” and the gold standard for thundering dumbasses in Starfleet, Olson, Scotty’s doofus predecessor as chief engineer on the Enterprise in the 2009 film, who blew himself up.

Burnham, at least, shows some brains, as the first thing she does when Ripper gets free is turn the lights up very brightly, causing it to run back into its cell. (Burnham thus proves smarter than everyone on the Enterprise-E in Star Trek Nemesis, since the Remans were also very sensitive to light, and at no point did anyone on the Enterprise order the lights turned up when the Remans boarded. This, by the way, is one of a billion reasons why Nemesis is a terrible movie and an unworthy swan song for the TNG crew, but that’s neither here nor there…)

Lorca tries to use Landry’s death to motivate Burnham, but she still remembers that she’s in a Star Trek show, and she deduces that Ripper wasn’t an intruder on the Glenn but the missing part of the spore drive. Stamets has salvaged everything the Glenn had on board, and there are critical pieces missing, including a harness with nothing to put in it and also a supercomputer or something like it that make numerous calculations. Burnham believes that Ripper is both those missing pieces—it fits in the harness and it can make the calculations. They plug Ripper into the spore drive, travel to the colony and save it from the Klingons.

But Ripper looks displeased and unhappy at how it’s being used.

Tilly goes on (and on) to Burnham about how she saved the colony and how she may be getting a new rep. Then she finally opens the box that came to her from Georgiou, whose will stipulated that Burnham gets her telescope, and also a recorded message from Georgiou saying all kinds of nice things about Burnham that’s just twisting the knife. (Also: more Michelle Yeoh! Yay!)

There’s a lot to like here. The basic story of realizing that Ripper isn’t just a big scary monster is in the finest tradition of Trek (e.g., “Arena” and “The Devil in the Dark“). The Klingon story moves along in an unexpected direction, and we continue the superlative interactions between Burnham and Saru. It’s not at all surprising that Lorca never consulted his first officer on the decision to keep Burnham on board, and Saru’s grumpiness is well played by Doug Jones. In general, Saru is the breakout character here, as his running commentary is magnificent, and Jones does an amazing job of expressing himself through all the latex.

Speaking of running commentary, Stamets’s snottiness continues to be a joy, partly because he gets good snotty dialogue, partly because he’s a scientist who’s been drafted into being a soldier, and he doesn’t like it. (One would imagine he’d get along really well with Leonard McCoy. Or they’d hate each other. There’d be no middle ground.)

Plenty of questions are asked here: what will happen with Voq? what will happen when Burnham realizes that Ripper is in pain from being enslaved to the spore drive? for that matter, what will happen if they discover that Ripper is sentient? (Although the fact that the spore drive requires the enslavement of a living being goes a long way toward explaining why we never saw this tech again…)

By the way, I want to also address a complaint I’ve seen online. More than one person has said that the way you should judge Discovery is thusly: would Gene Roddenberry have approved? The question is being asked with the assumption that he wouldn’t have, and that’s why Discovery is bad. However, this criterion really only works if the person asking the question also dislikes The Wrath of Khan (the most popular of the baker’s dozen of Trek films) and believes that The Next Generation’s first season and The Motion Picture are the epitome of Trek (where in fact both are generally regarded to be awful). We have no idea what Roddenberry really would’ve thought of Discovery because he’s been dead for 26 years. But we know exactly what he thought of The Wrath of Khan because he spent all of 1982 going to conventions urging fans to boycott the second Trek movie because it violated his vision and wasn’t “real Star Trek.” (Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…) And TNG’s first season and the first movie were the two bits of Trek he had 100% creative control over.

Anyhow, with each episode, Discovery is getting more and more fascinating, and feels very much like a Trek story, from realizing the monster isn’t a monster to the fact that the plot is driven by the need to save people’s lives. It’s not perfect by any means—the labored Klingon dialogue remains a major pacing issue, and I still don’t see why this couldn’t be set 50 years after the end of the Dominion War, thus sidestepping one of the major complaints about the look of the show—but so far, I don’t regret the six bucks I’ve spent to watch the first month’s worth of episodes.

Keith R.A. DeCandido actually was kinda lukewarm on The Wrath of Khan, but it absolutely is real Star Trek, so there, nyah nyah.

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